FROM NEWCASTLE WITH LOVE part 2/4 – with actor & musician Brian Rapkin

In the first part of the interview Rapkin talked about his stage and TV career, in this second part he remembers his early days in music looking for a record deal with Newcastle post punk band, Punishment of Luxury.

TUNED IN

A song can have an unbelievable power – either the power to make you step inside yourself and think, or the power to galvanize you with energy and joy. I saw this when turning 19, hitch-hiking through France alone. I stopped off in a juke-box café for a while. The Beatles’ Lady Madonna started playing and the cafe came alive – all these French guys got up and started dancing, laughing, and singing along to ‘See how zey Run’.

I was beaming with delight, so proud of The Beatles, the piano, Paul’s voice, the guitar, the sax, the harmonies, the inventiveness and the euphoric drive of that music. It was magic. Two minutes and fifteen seconds of a song could take people to a different dimension. And it did.

TURNED ON

There was an old radiogram in our house, with speakers going into another room. Being much younger than my jazz-mad brother and my pop-crazy sister, a world of music drew me in. My parents didn’t get on well, so in a strained atmosphere music was an escape into other worlds.

Mr Sandman was haunting like a nightmare, Green Door by Frankie Vaughan told us of a secret world where people partied but the singer was lonely. Coconut Woman and Island in the Sun by Harry Belafonte were rays of warmth amidst the shadowy music. Every song went deep.

I first heard Elvis’ Heartbreak Hotel at 7. It stopped us all in our tracks – the vocal reverb, his passion, the electric guitar, the theme of loneliness, the sad double bass, the quirky piano. My sister worshipped Elvis. She took me to her friend’s house to hear Hound Dog. I was mesmerised.

Elvis’ Hard-Headed Woman had a compelling manic energy as did Great Balls of Fire by Jerry Lee Lewis, and Jenny Jenny by Little Richard, the first single I bought. He ran out of breath and broke down mid-track but they still released it. He made a mistake and they kept it in! Who needs perfection?

Brian in 1967 at Warwick University.

ALL THE LONELY PEOPLE

I had piano lessons for a while but hated practising and struggled with sight-reading. At 14 I learnt to play a cheap old Spanish guitar and re-taught myself piano, writing songs that copied The Animals and Them, Dylan and even Eleanor Rigby. The Beatles, Stones and Dylan were gods, with The Kinks and The Who.

Music was an escape from difficult schooldays – my headmaster was an ex-Japanese POW and was a bizarre sadist.

STUDIO VIRGIN

At 17 I left school, worked as a brickie and saved enough to cut a disc in a studio in Surrey. I wrote and recorded it using 12-string guitar, wooden flute, Hammond organ and the engineer on bass. It was teenage atheism Heaven’s There for Those Who Need It, but it was a first stab at recording.

At university me and my best mate wrote and performed songs. We recorded at a studio in Coventry in 1969, and made about 100 copies of an LP, Dreams of the Blue Beast, selling them at Uni for 32 shillings each in 1969. Germaine Greer (Australian broadcaster & writer) was my Shakespeare tutor – even she bought one. 

STAR MAN & KEMP

I also rearranged Lord of the Dance, sang it and played organ in Coventry Cathedral while Annie Stainer mime danced down the aisles as a female clown Christ. Lindsay Kemp (Bowies dance collaborator) heard my voice on her rehearsal tape and hired me as a singer in a production.

I worked again for Kemp in Flowers years later. His marriage of theatre and Mozart, 1920s songs and Pink Floyd, was so powerful. Flowers started with Mozart’s Requiem all of us dressed as nuns in high heels, stockings and suspenders, rubbing ourselves against a pillar.

Angie Bowie came to it, recruiting dancers for Bowie’s London Rainbow gig. Not being a dancer, I didn’t get picked by her but got a peck on the cheek and a freebie to the Rainbow– it was a mind-blowing gig, making me more determined to pursue music with visuals. Kemp and Bowie showed the magic of music combined with images.

Music weekly ‘Sounds’ squashed between The Police and Def Leppard.

GATESHEAD ROCKET

In the mid-70s I met Nev and Steve in Newcastle. They joined our theatre group Mad Bongo for projects like the musical of Orwell’s 1984. Punishment of Luxury began and song-writing with Nev became a new experience. I discovered the inspiration of sharing ideas with him. He was a talented guitarist, composer and lyricist, who could change my ideas and de-normalise them, making them crazier. I could help him shape his ideas too.

We were alchemists, turning base metal into gold. Then with a superb bassist like Jimmy we had a super-strong combination. Later we got Steve, the dynamic drummer we always wanted.

As well as the inspiration of Bowie, we wanted to write powerful songs after seeing the Sex Pistols on Top of the Pops, doing Pretty Vacant. It was 1977 and I was visiting Nev in his flat on the 26th floor of The Rocket, a high-rise in Dunston, Gateshead. Johnny Rotten seemed to leap from the screen into the room – visually and musically he was phenomenal, it was a seminal moment. We knew what we had to do.

MAKING NOISES

The Newcastle music scene in 1977 had The Big G as the leading punk outfit and the Young Bucks with a devoted student following at the Cooperage every week. Their drummer later joined Dexies (Midnight Runners). One band, the 45s, had their own student following at the New Darnell, Fenham. The macho keyboardist used to down a full pint with one hand while playing a solo with the other.

The Big G were much better than us for a while, then we pulled our fingers out and got their guitarist Red Helmet to join us.

SIGN OF THE TIMES

Our songs reflected our lives. Nev wrote most of Puppet Life, about fascism and people controlling our lives in relationships or in politics. He also wrote the music for, and I did the lyrics for, a song called Pouf, which we later dropped, as people misinterpreted the song if the sound system was poor and lyrics were unclear.

As the singer I was in role as a gay-bashing bigot, whereas Nev and Jimmy were singing defiant words as oppressed gays. It trod a fine line between ironic humour and provocation. At the Blue Bell pub in Gateshead, pointing at men in the audience and chanting ‘pouf’ was a way to get them involved but it would be wrong to do it now.

The word was maybe used more casually in the ‘70s but is now acknowledged to be grossly homophobic and that kind of role-playing, often misunderstood then, would feel clumsy and awkward now.

It was partly inspired by my teaching days when teenage lads passed me in the corridor whispering ‘pouf’ at me.  Real life was always a basis for song writing, but songs like that wouldn’t work in 2021.

LONDON CALLING

Once we discovered we could all work well together and our songs were going down well with local audiences, we wanted to take it further, play in other places and record the songs – we couldn’t afford to fund it all ourselves so we needed some money behind us to do justice to the songs and make a living out of what had become a passion.

We got our first London gig at the Elephant and Castle. With the aid of our manager Frank we played to a small bunch of people and an agent called Richard Hermitage liked us. He booked us gigs, and we started touring more and more, getting good reviews and a better fee each time.

We had recorded Puppet Life, Blood of Love and The Demon at Impulse Studio, Wallsend at our own expense. We took the tape to London but it was the week before Christmas 1977. No-one saw us – they were all at Christmas parties – except Arnold Frollows at Virgin, who was interested. He heard Puppet Life, then dove into a cupboard and came out with Devo’s Jocko Homo, an import single, saying Puppet Life was quite similar. 

THE DEAL

We did a gig at Spectro Arts workshop in Pilgrim Street, Newcastle. Arnold Frollows came up to the gig and it got a glowing review in Sounds. It was a start. We were offered a standard Virgin eight album deal but the line-up wasn’t quite stable enough, even though many bands would have leapt at the chance.

So we went to an indie, Small Wonder in Walthamstow, East London. Pete Stennett, an open, visionary guy with long hair and a woolly hat, immediately liked the songs and said yes. We had control over the artwork and production. It was so right. We stayed at Patrik Fitzgerald’s (the Punk Poet) big house, which he kindly lent us for a couple of days.

One of the biggest highs was sitting in the Cooperage with a drink and a transistor radio, listening to John Peel play Puppet Life for the first time. A dream come true.

Read part three when Brian is recording in London studios and remembers some memorable gigs.

Interview by Gary Alikivi  March 2021.

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